Mental Illness in the Micro-Business Workplace

by Joy Johnson on August 24, 2012

According to the Social Security Administration’s statistics, Mental Illness is the second leading  cause of disability in the United States and strikes one out of every five people. It usually affects people between 25 and 40.  The recent economic downturn has put a strain on everyone. If someone breaks a leg, you can see it, sympathize, and react appropriately. You can’t ” handle ” things you don’t know exist and mental issues are generally not visually detectable. Employees, customers, vendors, people in general, are at risk for mental disorders. In a larger business, the development of a mental disorder or illness in a single individual may not be catastrophic, but it can pose serious challenges for a micro-sized business. For that reason, it’s helpful to recognize it early and develop a strategy for dealing with it.

If one member of a very small staff develops a mental disorder, work life for everyone will be affected. The situation is made more difficult, and more complex by lack of disclosure. Mental disorders cannot be seen. We’re taught to be ” understanding. ” Behavioral changes may not be radical, or may be explained away. Any mental disorder, however, diagnosed or not, may affect an employee’s ability to react normally to the demands of their jobs.

If someone has a mental disorder, they may have difficulty communicating. They may not process corrective criticism normally, or they may be overly critical of themselves. If someone becomes depressed, they lose the energy they typically bring to projects. Most mental disorders and illnesses interfere with sleep patterns. Lack of sleep generally translates to a drop in performance.

While we need to be sensitive to people who have problems, changes should trigger enhanced observation. If people seek help, get on medication, and stay on it, they can often function normally.

While employers must always be compassionate, they need to maintain professional detachment. It’s difficult not to  get close to individuals you work with, particularly when the period of employment becomes lengthy and the staff is very small. Still, it is the best policy.

Having a personal attachment to an employee renders you incapable of making sound business decisions. Maintaining a professional detachment will allow you to be objective when analyzing your employee’s performance. If the employee has historically performed well, you’ll tend to overlook performance problems. Documentation is a key in helping to avoid that.

Just as it’s difficult to tell if someone you see daily is losing or gaining weight until a substantial change has occurred, you may not notice a gradual slide in performance. Constantly measuring performance using analytical methods will remove personal bias or inability to perceive small amounts of change. Sliding levels of performance should be addressed promptly and consistently. If standards are not maintained, use Human Resource procedures for scheduled, as well as spontaneous, performance reviews. Document findings and comments, have employees acknowledge the content of the conversation with their signature, and provide them with a copy.

Individuals suffering from mental disorders and diseases are considered ” disabled ” and cannot  be discriminated against. You will be expected to make special accommodations for their needs. They may well be eligible, by virtue of their own disorder affected perceptions, for Unemployment Compensation, should they choose to quit. In some cases, they may also attempt to file for Worker’s Compensation. Stay detached, measure performance, document deviation, and develop an operational strategy.


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